Arsenal, Manchester United reach tipping point ahead of crucial clash
The math is sobering. This was supposed to be Manchester United's year of redemption, after last season's fiasco. The highly-respected manager was supposed to undo the damage inflicted by the highly-qualified manager who replaced the finally-retired legendary manager. But things haven't been much better. Almost a third of the way into the season, United have lumbered up to seventh place, a full 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea.
And then there's that math. United already have lost three games. Louis van Gaal, that incumbent manager who isn't working out quite so well just yet, insists there is still time for United to win the title. Indeed, 27 games remain. But a peek into the history of the Premier League, and a quick tap-tap-tap on the calculator suggest he is probably wrong. In 22 seasons, the Premier League title winner has lost an average of just 4.47 games over the entire season — if you normalize the first three Premier League seasons from 1992-93 through 1994-95, when 42 games were played. No team has won the league in the 38-game season adopted in 1995-96 with more than six losses.
Which is all to say that, even though it is only mid-November, if United don't win away at Arsenal (live, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET), they likely will have rammed the final nail into the coffin containing their hopes for a title (or dignity) this year.
United have spiraled ever downward for some 15 months now. David Moyes had made a hash of things last season, and his interim successor Ryan Giggs didn't fare a whole lot better. Van Gaal was supposed to be the proper replacement for Sir Alex Ferguson, who had left behind a team that was aging and perhaps sated, but also had just won the league by double digits.
For now, van Gaal would do. Everybody knows the Dutchman, for his tactical and team-constructing genius, is a man whose jobs never seem to last very long. But not even he, with the benefit of the biggest transfer expenditure in the world this summer, could prevent the season from falling apart before it even had been put together.
An opening day-loss to Swansea City was followed by draws to poky Sunderland and Burnley. In September and early October, United seemed to have figured some things out, winning three of four games. But then a biblical injury plague struck and they have won just one of their past four since. United have had a grotesque 40 injuries already this season, robbing van Gaal of most of his backline and several big would-be contributors like striker Radamel Falcao and central midfielder Ander Herrera. On that score, things just keep getting worse. Mega-transfer acquisition Angel Di Maria, goalkeeper David de Gea and midfielder Daley Blind all were hurt in the last week as well.
If United lose again — and they're hardly favorites to avoid such a fate — their hopes of mustering something even remotely resembling a title challenge will be dead.
The same, funnily enough, is true for Arsenal. Last season, they avoided their now-customary early-season swoon and put up a real fight for the league for the first time in years, before fading in the spring. This year, they have stumbled out of the gate again: two wins from their first eight games. Wins over Sunderland and Burnley — the very teams that put United in trouble early on — seemed to signal a turnaround. But then two weeks ago plucky Swansea came from behind to beat them.
Arsenal have had their own injury issues and have been beset by problems in defense and, at times, going forward. Their big summer signing, Alexis Sanchez, recently has come good, though, scoring six times in their past four games. Fellow forward Danny Welbeck, meanwhile, bought from United just this summer, is rounding into fine form and suggesting his acquisition could be an inspired one.
These are the consolations for Arsenal, who nevertheless know that points must now come fast. Ditto for United. Somehow, this game between these rank underachievers is pregnant with promise. With Arsenal on 17 points and United on 16, a win and a few favorable results conceivably could see either side Swansea and West Ham United (both on 18 points and playing away at Manchester City and Everton, respectively) and stake fourth place. From there, third-place Manchester City (21 points), the defending champions with problems of their own, would be well within their sights.
Win on Saturday and things might not seem or even be so hopeless after all. Lose, and all will feel lost — and rightly so.
Seasons tend to come down to tipping points. And these old rivals, and title long-shots, have reached one.